Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Can Mormons Write Great Literature?

Yes, yes, I'm supposed to be writing a novel right now, but I'm in a bit of a rut, so I've come back here to write a post and avoid writing my book. Plus, I read a couple of things this week related to writing in general that have really got me thinking and I kind of wanted to talk about them here.

I stumbled across this article from the New York Times called "Mormons Offer Cautionary Lesson About Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness." Basically, the author talks about how any well-known or popular Mormon authors (Orson Scott Card, Stephanie Meyer, Shannon Hale) tend to gravitate toward genre fiction (fantasy, sci-fi) or young adult fiction because we, as a Mormon culture, feel more comfortable in these relatively happier, good beats evil genres than we do with the darker content of literary fiction. They gist is that Mormons are encouraged to always promote things that are "lovely, virtuous, of good report, and praise-worthy," and that basically rules us out from ever writing serious stuff like sex, violence, or the depressing messiness of the human condition, in any sort of realistic literary sense.

I know a few of my (Mormon) friends took issue with this argument, citing Mormon authors who aren't afraid to write about sex and violence and other generally taboo topics, but honestly, I agreed with the article. I've actually pondered about this phenomenon before, because it's very clear to me that Mormon authors only seem to find success and recognition in genre categories. I just can't think of a single note-worthy literary fiction Mormon author, at least not one that's still in good standing with the Church.

But I'm not sure I agree with the author's hints that it's the structure of the Mormon church itself that limits our authors. I'm just not sure that we have a bunch of repressed authors who would turn out to be Miltons and Shakespeares if the Church would just encourage us to write about the darker side of life. I honestly believe that Mormons don't write about the depressing subject matter of so much literary fiction because for most of us, that is not our reality. Maybe I shouldn't speak for other Mormon authors (and maybe I shouldn't be presumptuous enough to consider myself a Mormon author), but my reality is happy. Okay, not everything is perfect, there have been trials and hard times, but at the end of the day my reality consists of hope in a God that will make everything all right, and that brings me peace. I don't find myself drowning in the utter senselessness of human life and suffering. My life has meaning, my pain makes sense to me. There is a happy ending (or at least, the hope of a happy ending) to each and every one of my stories, and that simply does not fit with the modern sense of literary fiction.

This whole process of writing a novel has taught me this about myself as a writer. I think that I would love to write a literary fiction novel, but most of the literary fiction novels I've read in recent years have left me feeling sad, hopeless about life, and dark. And no, I'm not comfortable writing a book like that. I don't want to create something that is so antithetical to the way I actually feel and live. So I have started a novel that is a young adult fantasy. I'm more comfortable in this genre because even though there is magic, there is also a happy ending, and that is closer to my view of reality than more "realistic" literary fiction.

Really, I don't think this is a problem of the Church or religion, but rather one of the current state of literary fiction. It's a question, posed by a character in one of my favorite books (Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner):
Oh, come on, Charity said. Really. Art and literature have these fashions. Why don't you just ignore all that stuff so many modern writers concentrate on, and write something about a really decent, kind, good human being living a normal life in a normal community, interested in the things most ordinary people are interested in-- family, children, education-- good uplifting entertainment? (216).
What a question for the ages. Why don't writers write this kind of happy, normal stuff? Because only children and young adults will read it and find it to be of any worth. Because otherwise it is cast off as religious, sentimental fiction, not serious stuff. Because literary fiction must be full of sex and depression and meaningless tragedy.

I'm not saying that Mormon authors should ignore the real pain and suffering of life, pretend like it doesn't exist, and try not to represent it realistically. This would not be an accurate portrayal of life. A deep part of our doctrine is that there must be opposition in all things, and we recognize that there is suffering in this life and it is necessary. Our literature should reflect that. However, I don't think that we will see any great Mormon literary authors until the literary world accepts that while there is suffering, there is it's opposite as well. Some conflicts have resolutions, some people find peace in this life, and happiness is a legitimate reality. Happiness is a story worth being told, and I hope someday to read a great literary work that tells it.

Maybe I'll have to write it.

(P.S. I would love to know if you agree or disagree with any of my thoughts here. I'm willing to admit that my limited experience might not reflect the reality of the literary world, the Mormon literary community, or life in general.)

Friday, November 8, 2013

Novel Writing Update

I mentioned last week that my goal is to write a novel this month. I'm assuming that most of you are dying to know how I'm doing with this goal, so here I am to share my first week update.

You can see my NaNoWriMo word count widget above. For whatever reason, the NaNoWriMo official goal for every participant is 50,000 words. Apparently that is the suitable length of any legitimate novel (seems mighty arbitrary to me) but I guess it's a worthy enough goal, so that's what I'm shooting for. To write 50,000 words in one month, I should be averaging 1,667 words a day, which would mean by the end of today I should have written 13,336 words. As you can see, I'm a little behind. More like a lot behind.

But let's look at the positive. I've written over 8,000 words! This is the longest story I've ever written in my life to this point, and I'm pretty proud of those 8,000 words. And I'm pretty surprised at how much fun I'm having. Just the other day I caught myself thinking, "Huh, this story is getting interesting. I'm excited to find out what happens next." And then I had the crashing realization that wait, I have to COME UP with what happens next.

But anyway, this whole process is teaching me a lot about myself as a writer. It's been pretty interesting to learn this stuff, and maybe some of you are interested in my personal reflections, and maybe some of you are not, but I'm going to write them down here anyway.

1. When we heard Brandon Sanderson speak a few weeks ago, he said that there are two kinds of writers in the world: gardeners and architects. Gardeners discover the story as they go along, whereas architects have the entire story mapped out before they write a single word. Sanderson is an architect, and that is why his intricate stories are so well crafted. He knows where he's going before he begins. I have discovered that I am... a gardener. I spent the first four days of this month hemming and hawing over an outline, trying to decide just how I wanted to tell this story, and I got nowhere. I finally just decided to open up a stupid word document and start typing something. And, lo and behold, the words just keep coming. I still have no clear idea where this story is going, but I'm discovering it as I go. Kind of exciting.

2. I am completely uncreative and unoriginal. I already admitted before I began this project that I had no ideas for a novel, and so I just decided to do what Disney has done with so much success, and rip off the Brother's Grimm. Yep, I'm doing a fairy-tale retelling. Super original, I know, but at least now my novel has some chance of being half-way readable. Also, apparently I can only write in cliches. I mean, it's terrible. I have entire paragraphs where every single sentence includes a cliche. So yeah, queen of cliches here. It's bad.

3. So right now this story is set in some vague, unidentified European country (although it's looking more and more like France, the more I write) and the time period is some undetermined historical period of the past. This means that a lot of my descriptions are vague, and my dialogue is ridiculous. It's like I'm trying to channel my favorite historical authors (Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare), and the result is this completely pretentious, flowery, overly-wordy dialogue that is probably horrible to read, but I must say is so much fun to write. I just giggle over getting to use words like "fortnight." Honestly, this thing would never make it past an editor.

4. This whole process has been easier than I thought. Now, I might not be saying this next week when I hit a wall and find I have nowhere to go with my story (because, like I said, I really don't know where I'm going). But for right now, I'm completely surprised at how much I've been able to write during my son's naptimes. I can punch out a 1,000 words an hour, more if I'm actually focused. Part of the ease is the fact that I'm not worried about actually making it good. I'm not going back through and editing, I'm not stressing over whether some editor would actually publish this. I'm just writing to write, and it's been fun. Now, to actually meet the 50,000 word goal, I'm probably going to have to start neglecting things like housework and social engagements, and that might not be so much fun, for me or my family (my husband told me I wasn't allowed to write after dinner tonight, and I kind of got huffy about that, but I suppose it is Friday night, or something like that) but we'll see how it goes.

Okay, that's enough rambling for now. I'll be back next week with another riveting update about how my little novel is coming along.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review: The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die. At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them. Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

So, if any of you have actually been following this closely along, I reviewed Maggie Stiefvater's book The Raven Boys back in June. I'd heard a lot of good things about Stiefvater so I was pretty excited to read the book, but I must say I was largely disappointed in it. The Raven Boys just didn't impress me very much, and I was kind of ready to write Stiefvater off as not my thing. But then, the other week, when I was in need of a new audio book to listen to while mopping my floors (I just can't do housework unless I'm listening to a book), and this was the only half-way decent book in my library's online collection available for immediate download, I decided to give it a shot.

And now, I must take back all those dismissive things I said about Maggie Stiefvater, because even though I didn't like The Raven Boys, The Scorpio Races is a masterpiece. I mean, this was honestly one of the best YA novels I've read this year. I now see why all those people were heaping such praise on Stiefvater, because THIS book deserves all that praise. The characters were just unbelievably well crafted, the plot was tight and the story... well, it was one of the best written stories I've read in a long time. And this was actually the thing that bugged me the most about The Raven Boys. I felt like that book meandered and lost focus and the story just wasn't engaging for me, so it was amazing to see Stiefvater nail it so perfectly in this book. I loved the tight time frame (essentially two weeks leading up to the big race), the way tension built throughout the training period, the suspense of really not knowing who was going to win or which character you wanted to root for (I really was torn, I loved both Sean and Puck so much), the explosive climax of the race itself, and then the absolutely perfect resolution of everything (hallelujah for a good stand-alone novel!). Add to this recipe an incredible setting (fictional island of Thisby), some fantastic mythology come to life (killer water horses), a little romance, and just plain lovely writing, and you get a completely wonderful book.

Highly recommend this one to anybody who likes a good story.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Write a Novel in a Month

I think, like every other book obsessed child out there, I always wanted to be a writer. I was that nerdy girl who wrote twelve page stories when the teacher only asked for two, kept huge notebooks filled with stories and ideas and random twaddle, and seriously planned on writing THE next great American novel. But then, writing for a career struck me as a little unstable and unpractical, so I became an English teacher, and then life happened, and that whole dream of becoming an author kind of got shelved. I always thought, Someday, when that perfect idea hits me, and I have the time, and the stars are all aligned, I'll write that Great American Novel.

But you know how things go, and I doubt I'm ever going to have that perfect idea, or the time. I have a couple of friends who have written novels (reviewed one here) and I just kind of hold them in awe. Like, wow, real people can actually think up these ideas and write these whole books and get them published!? While they do other things like raise families and go to grad school and stuff? It just seems like such a daunting thing, writing that many words!

But really, I'm going to be pretty disappointed with myself if I get to the end of this life without ever even attempting to write a book. So sometimes, you've just got to buckle down and give your life goals a try, right?

I've been skimming through Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project recently (got it for my birthday, one of my favorite reads) and for one of her happiness goals she writes a novel in a month. I started thinking, You know, I should just do that. Just sit down and write a novel in a month, just to try. So I'm going to, this month, try to write a novel. It just so happens (pure coincidence, I promise), that this month is November (gah! November 1st today, can you believe it?) which happens to be National Novel Writing Month. I'd heard of NaNoWriMo before, but in all honesty I hadn't paid much attention to the movement until I realized that my novel writing month was going to coincide with theirs, so I thought, what the hey! I'll sign up for an account with them. Just making this goal a little more official is all.

So yep, starting today I'm going to spend this entire month working on a novel. Do I have a plot idea? Nope. Do I have characters? Not really. Do I even know what genre of novel I want to write? No (but I'm going to figure that all out by the end of today, I promise). My only plan is to just plunge in and start writing something. It's probably going to be spectacularly horrible, and no one will ever be allowed to read it ever. But it's just something I've got to do.

So, if things are quiet around the blog this month, it's probably because I'm trying to write a book. If things are a little more busy on the blog this month, it's probably because I'll be trying to avoid writing my book (nothing like a blog post to clear up the writer's block, right?). But here's to wishing myself luck!

Now excuse me. I've got a book to write.